Sunday, December 6, 2009

Science and Seals

It may be hard to believe, but there is science beyond neutrino astronomy. Sunday is the day off for most people here, and this Sunday was a good opportunity to explore some of the other things that are going on here.

One opportunity is the weekly tour of Crary Lab, where we heard about a diverse range of topics. We started out at their collection of biological and geological specimens. One feature was a fossilized tree stump from the Permian era (220 to 270 million years ago). It is a clear reminder that Antarctica wasn't always so cold.

We also heard from several scientists. One gentleman told us about his work measuring environmental contamination in and around McMurdo; the main issue is from fuel spills. We also heard a bit about monitoring of the Mt. Erebus volcano - it spits out lava bombs quite frequently. I briefly explained what we are doing on ARIANNA. But, the highlight of the tour was a visit to the 'aquarium' where biologists study local flora and fauna. It was pretty quiet when we were there, but there were some interesting specimens (all invertebrates):

The black shell is a scallop, and the white flowery creature is an anemone. I think that the 7-legged thing is a starfish of some sort (there were several similar ones with 7 legs, so it's not an anomaly).

After this, I went to the SCINI (Submersible Capable of Under Ice Navigation and Imaging) open house. They have developed a torpedo-shaped robot that can swim around under water, controlled from the surface. They were set up in a small hut sitting on the ice; they drill a hole through the ice and lower the torpedo down it.

We got a chance to actually 'drive' the torpedo around. It was pretty cool, and surprisingly easy - four buttons for direction, plus another toggle for up/down. The ocean floor was surprisingly prolific - lots of sponges of various types. We also saw one or two fish swim past. The tether is about 1 km long, and provides power and control. To go further, they load everything up on a piston bully:

and drive to another spot.

But, the highlight of the day was outside the SCINI hut: four black Weddell Seals. Three were adults, 8-10 feet long, and weighing up to 1,000 pounds; the top photo is an example. The last was much smaller and lighter colored, a pup maybe 3-4 feet long. They apparently came up through a hole in the ice, and were enjoying the sun.

After this, the Sunday science lecture, where Drs. Peter Doran and Bill Stone discussed the Endurance project. The group has built an autonomous (untethered) underwater robot. They are exploring Lake Bonney, an ice covered lake in a nearby dry valley. Te long-term view is toward developing a vehicle that could explore the seas of Europa (one of the moons of Jupiter).


  1. Hi Spencer:

    I am reading your blog with great interest. You are a great writer and make me feel that I am there with you in Antartcia.

    Thank you very much. Keep warm and stay out of the wind. We have also a bit freezing temperatures around here. The mountains in the Bay Area, and even the lower lying cities like Walnut Creek, were covered with snow yesterday.



  2. Seals are very friendly animals. It is almost a most for someone who goes to Antarctica to watch the seals at least once.